Election 2016: Trump’s free media helped keep cost down, but fewer donors provided more of the cash

by Niv Sultan

Trump received about $6 billion in free media during the campaign, meaning he and the groups supporting him could spend less producing ads and buying expensive TV time. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

Election Day, 2016? Now an ancient memory from a distant time. But the intervening months have allowed us to do some math and determine, finally, the price tag for the whole shebang. We can now report that the total cost of the election was nearly $6.5 billion, a 3 percent increase from 2012’s figure of just under $6.3 billion.

Adjusted for inflation, however, that’s actually a drop of about 1.4 percent. Inflation-adjusted spending also fell from 2010 to 2014, making this a two-cycle trend.

The presidential race was responsible, in large part, for keeping the tally down in 2016. Despite the crowded field of 19 candidates, the cost of the White House race — at under $2.4 billion, including campaign committee and outside spending — was lower than that of both 2008 (about $2.8 billion) and 2012 (over $2.6 billion), even when measured by actual dollars (not inflation-adjusted).

Congressional races, on the other hand, were pricier than ever, totaling more than $4 billion, compared to $3.8 billion in 2014 and under $3.7 billion in 2012.

And, all things considered, Democrats and Republicans roughly split the costs of the election, with each picking up 47.7 percent of the tab; the remaining 4.6 percent came from independent groups or spending that lacks party codes in our data (like most of PAC overhead, for instance).

President Donald Trump‘s campaign cost almost $398 million, which was considerably lower than candidate Hillary Clinton‘s total of more than $768 million. But Trump was Trump, and thus a constant focus of media attention. According to mediaQuant, Inc., from July 2015 through October 2016 Trump received free media worth more than $5.9 billion. Clinton received less than half that figure, a little under $2.8 billion.

That helped negate the fact that Clinton and her supporters massively outspent Trump and his. Clinton outpaced Trump in campaign committee spending as well as party support; and her outside spending firepower was especially impressive, as single-candidate groups backing Clinton spent more than triple the amount that those in favor of Trump spent.

*Outside spending, in this case, consists of outside groups dedicated to a specific candidate; organizations like the NRA, for example, would not be included.

In 2012, through the channels featured in the above chart, the campaigns of President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney cost more than $2.1 billion combined. Trump and Clinton’s campaigns, on the other hand, didn’t break $1.9 billion — with Clinton’s making up almost 62 percent of the total.

“This was the first presidential cycle of the 21st century in which traditional campaign spending declined,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “Yet the value of earned media can’t be ignored. Media outlets provided nonstop coverage of Donald Trump’s campaign, reducing the negative effect of comparatively anemic spending by his campaign and conservative outside groups.”

An elite cadre

There was another notable difference from the financing of other recent elections, though: Fewer donors provided a larger share of the money. Just look at a group we call the 0.01 percent.

The 0.01 percent consists of the cycle’s top donors — where the number of members equals 1 percent of 1 percent of the United States’ estimated adult population (aged 18 or older). In 2012, that group numbered fewer than 24,000, and gave about $1.6 billion in contributions. The total for 2016’s 0.01 percent spiked to more than $2.3 billion — an increase of about 45 percent. That vastly outstripped the growth in the group’s size, which was only 3 percent.

Most of that increase came in the form of soft money, or contributions to outside spending groups, which more than doubled. Given that there are no limits on the size of these donations, and that super PACs, 501(c)(4)s and similar organizations continue to proliferate with each cycle, soft money gifts are a reliable means of getting enormous sums of cash into elections.

On the flip side, the share of total contributions considered “small,” or made by individuals giving $200 or less in a cycle, fell by about 3.4 percent from 2012 to 2016 — despite the enormous haul of small donations harvested by the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) (and, to a lesser extent, Trump). More than 59 percent of the funds Sanders raised came from donors giving $200 or less. His rhetoric about more economic power funneling toward fewer people as income inequality worsens resonated with the public — and, as it turned out, was appropriate for the cycle’s campaign finance picture as well, where power has become increasingly concentrated within a shrinking group.

In fact, more broadly, total contributions from donors not in the 0.01 percent decreased between presidential cycles.

And here’s the kicker: While the 0.01 percent swings lots of money around, a disproportionate amount of that cash comes from yet another subgroup, and the imbalance has gotten worse with time. In 2012, the top 50 donors made up about 19 percent of the 0.01 percent’s contributions. In 2016, they accounted for nearly 30 percent.

That’s why we also looked at the top 1 percent of 1 percent of donors, a group of less than 200 people who spent almost $1 billion combined in the 2016 cycle. The group’s political contributions more than doubled from 2012 to 2016, from about $390 million to nearly $948 million. And although the group’s size grew by about 33.4 percent, which would naturally raise giving totals, the contribution increase amounted to an even greater 143 percent.

The uppermost crust

Billionaire donors like casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, consistently pile millions of dollars onto federal elections. The pair contributed a combined $82.5 million over the course of the 2016 cycle. But they were eclipsed by a single individual: Tom Steyer, a hedge fund manager and environmentalist, who led all donors by pumping more than $90 million into the election. Despite their political differences, Steyer, a liberal, and the Adelsons, staunch conservatives, are on the same page when it comes to spending millions of dollars on their causes.

“On a lot of issues, it’s really a shoot-out between these billionaires who are picking favorites,” said Richard Painter, former chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, professor of corporate law at the University of Minnesota Law School and a board chair of the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Painter said that wealthy donors often push their agendas to the detriment of society at large. “It’s always hard for a broadly dispersed group to counter a very narrow interest,” he said. “So the money tends to pursue very narrow agendas that are very selfish, and very destructive to the rest of society from the very top to the very bottom. It becomes chaotic; you have irrational policy positions.” Million-dollar donors tend to vie for their own interests, whether those involve causes like gun rights or something more directly related to their business concerns, like the legal status of online gambling.

Among the newcomers to the uppermost crust was Dustin Moskovitz, who emerged with a bang. Prior to the 2016 cycle, the co-founder of Facebook and Asana had contributed to just one federal candidate or cause: He gave $5,200 in 2013 to House candidate Sean Eldridge (D-N.Y.), who is married to Chris Hughes, another Facebook co-founder. Then, in the 2016 cycle, Moskovitz gave almost $18 million to candidates and organizations.

Stories like Moskovitz’ point to the fact that not only are the most prolific donors giving more, but also more donors are becoming prolific. 2012 had 37 donors give at least $2 million; 2016 had 110.

“When you see that the bulk of the money is coming from a few wealthy donors — who, by the way, tend to be male, white and older — it’s worrying,” said Every Voice’s Laura Friedenbach. “It gives the impression that the government is not working for the rest of us,” she said.

Surprise, surprise

In our pre-election estimate of the 2016 cycle’s total cost, we predicted that the election would cost at least $6.9 billion. With a final cost of roughly $6.5 billion, we were off by about 6.4 percent.

The most impactful contributor to the gap between our prediction and the final tally was outside spending. In 2012, outside spending constituted 19 percent of the election’s cost; in 2016, that number shot up to 24 percent. (And remember that the greatest change in the 0.01 percent’s giving from 2012 to 2016 was the group’s soft money contributions, which fuel outside spending groups.) Our projection took that larger share of the pool into account, and also operated under the assumption that outside spending would increase as election day neared, as it often does. But outside spending actually slowed down relative to 2012, causing our estimate to be a little high.

Regardless, about 42 percent of outside spending went to Democrats, and roughly 56 percent to Republicans.

Another surprise was the spending of party committees. We estimated that groups like the DNC and RNC would spend $1.3 billion, and they ended up pouring more than $1.5 billion into the election. Still, that was within 3 percent of 2012’s slightly-larger figure.

For a full breakdown of the cost of the 2016 election, see the chart below. You can sort it by any of the columns to pinpoint whatever metric you’re interested in.

Researchers Doug Weber and Dan Auble contributed to this post.